I just got back from Alaska. After a month of exploring America’s largest state, I feel qualified to make a few comparisons to Maine wildlife.
First, I like walking in the Maine woods better, because there is nothing here that wants to eat me. Alaskan bears seemed confused by the idea that I am at the top of the food chain — an argument I hoped not to have with them. Nothing hones your vigilance and powers of observation like hiking in grizzly-rich Denali National Park.
Second, Alaskan mosquitoes are wimps. Theirs are a little bigger, but ours are more aggressive and much sneakier.
Third, Maine has a lot more birds. For instance, on a good day in the woods, I can find up to 20 species of warblers in Maine. Over there, just about every warbler was orange-crowned, yellow-rumped, Wilson’s, yellow or blackpoll.
Ditto for sparrows. Maine has up to 16 sparrow species. In Alaska, Savannah and fox sparrows were omnipresent. Lincoln’s and American tree sparrows were common. And that was about it.
Likewise, Maine has more flycatchers, swallows, thrushes, woodpeckers and hawks. They have more ducks, shorebirds and the uber-cute Lapland longspurs.
Alaska has more seabirds, including two species of puffin not found in Maine. I started the trip having seen only Atlantic puffins in my life. Now I’ve admired hundreds of horned and tufted puffins, plus many of their relatives, the murrelets and auklets that proliferate in the Bering Sea.
Fourth, I can stop complaining about Maine’s early sunrise in June. While I was in Nome, the sun set at 1:15 a.m., and rose again minutes later. It never got dark, which meant that the birds were singing at 2 a.m.
Fifth, Maine is way noisier. Not only do we have more songbirds, but they all chorus together at dawn. It’s a cacophony, like an orchestra tuning up. I dunno, maybe Alaska birds would also have a dawn chorus if they had a dawn. Instead, they seemed to sleep late.
Maine birds sing strongly just before breakfast. Alaska birds seemed to sing strongest just before lunch. Go figure.
Sixth, birds don’t care about color. Except for humans, most animals don’t care. Some brown bears are black, some black bears are brown, and a few bears of both species tend toward blonde. To find a grizzly, all I had to do was look for a huge, lumbering haystack, preferably in the far distance.
Color differences among birds were most remarkable. Maine’s fox sparrows are reddish. Alaskan fox sparrows are dark chocolate brown. They’re grayish in other parts of the country. Fox sparrows don’t care.
Maine’s dark-eyed juncos are gray on top. Alaska’s are similar. In Oregon, not that far away, they’re brown. There are 16 color variations in North America. Wherever they overlap, they interbreed. Juncos don’t care.
Maine’s yellow-rumped warblers have white throats. From Montana to Seattle, yellow-rumped warblers have yellow throats. Alaska’s are just like ours. Wherever the races overlap, they interbreed. Yellow-rumps don’t care.
Vocal differences were particularly amusing. Many shared species sounded the same in Alaska as they do in Maine, but the fox sparrows and Wilson’s warblers sounded different. The variation among yellow warblers was completely wacko. In the Midwest, they can sound like chestnut-sided warblers. In Alaska, several sounded like American redstarts.
Regional variations are normal. If a Dallas cattleman and a Jonesport lobsterman got into a conversation, I suspect they would need a translator.
Here’s the best part about the experience: I felt like a novice again. Secretly, I envy all those people who are just learning their birds. There is so much new and exciting to discover. In Alaska, I was forced to pay attention. My initial identifications were sometimes wrong, much to my delight.
There was no shortage of birding adventure for this Alaska rookie. For instance, the bristle-thighed curlew is a weird bird that nests in western Alaska but migrates to Hawaii. There’s a place along a wilderness-road-to-nowhere 72 miles from Nome where they are known to nest.
Every tour company in America goes there. The curlews are hard to find, usually requiring a muddy march up a desolate hill. Except during my visit, one met us in the parking lot. Wicked lucky.
I’m now back in Maine, and back in the woods. I will never take our birds for granted again. I don’t know any place in the country that has more songbirds crooning every morning. It’s good to be home.